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New Breed of City

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
       Jim Baca remembers the excitement when the interstate near his Albuquerque home was finished in the early 1960s. He could jump into the family VW bug and drive to high school on an ultramodern American freeway.
    It was, he recalled, a major milestone. "The way people thought then was ‘Wow, this really puts us on the map,' " said the 62-year-old former Albuquerque mayor.
    A couple of interstates crisscrossing the Duke City might have been sufficient to boost the Albuquerque of Baca's childhood, when the city was half its current size.
    Today, the Albuquerque-Santa Fe corridor is rapidly turning into one of the nation's major "megapolitan" areas, adding more than 100,000 people since 2000. And it needs to begin thinking and acting the part, according to a Brookings Institution study, "Mountain Megas: America's Newest Metropolitan Places and a Federal Partnership to Help Them Prosper."
    Transportation — especially mass transit — is a key element in making that happen.
    Stand on the Rail Runner platform in Downtown Albuquerque during the morning commute and you can see commuters from bedroom communities in the south making their way to buses connecting them with jobs in Albuquerque. If all goes according to plan, by the end of the year that platform will see commuters on their way to and from Santa Fe.
    That integrated economy — people living in Santa Fe and working in Albuquerque, or vice versa — is making northern New Mexico one of a new breed of Western supercities that are redefining the 21st-century shape of the American city, according to Robert Lang, one of the report's authors.
    Those burgeoning "mountain megas" consist of Salt Lake City and its Wasatch neighbors, the Phoenix-Tucson corridor, the sprawling Las Vegas metropolis, the Front Range cities of Colorado and the growing northern New Mexico region.
    The report's bottom line is that the Albuquerque-Santa Fe area and the other four growing giants of the Intermountain West are the new frontier of population and economic growth in the United States — a transition from "desert outposts and small cities" to "massive and booming urban regions" that are transforming the region into a "new American heartland."
    But for the region to succeed, the report says, the federal government needs to help pay the bills.
    ‘Fates become linked'
    The West's metro areas are growing fast, and they are surprisingly dense, given the West's reputation for vast empty spaces. Since 2000, the five metro areas have grown 20 percent, adding 2.5 million people. According to the Brookings study, 93 percent of the region's people live in urbanized areas. The national average is 79 percent.
    But in the West, the clusters of density are often separated by open spaces. A big reason for that pattern, Lang said, is water. In the eastern United States, there is enough water to throw up a subdivision almost anywhere. Here in the West, the dry climate forces development into concentrated pockets because of the need for centralized water supply systems, he said.
    And that adds to the challenges facing what Lang has dubbed "megapolitan" areas.
    From Española to Belen, the Rio Grande corridor is rapidly becoming the latest incarnation of a megapolitan area. There may be gaps between the population centers, but the way their economies are connected makes them one functional unit, Lang said: "Your fates become linked."
    An idea can originate at the Santa Fe Institute or Los Alamos National Laboratory, for example, have its birth as a small startup company in Santa Fe, then move to Albuquerque when the company needs a bigger-city environment closer to a major airport to support its growth, explained Christopher Leinberger.
    Location becomes less important in this new 21st century economy, but proximity remains critical, said Leinberger, an urban studies scholar at the Brookings Institution who also has worked on Downtown Albuquerque development. Leinberger works with the Brookings team that wrote the new report but was not directly involved in its production.
    The great strength of the Albuquerque-Santa Fe corridor in exploiting that new kind of connection is the brain power of two major national labs, a research university and all the institutions and businesses that surround them, Leinberger said.
    "What New Mexico is known for," he said, "is the intellectual firepower that exists in Albuquerque and Santa Fe combined."
    "On a per capita basis, it's unparalleled in the country," he said.
    The key to taking advantage of that Albuquerque-Santa Fe critical mass of brain power, though, is the infrastructure to make it easier for people in the two population centers to work together.
    Playing catch-up
    For Leinberger and others, the Rail Runner stands as a classic example of the sort of thing that needs to be done. "It's going to be absolutely essential in the $4 gas environment that we're in," Leinberger said.
    But the Rail Runner also serves as an example of what Lang and his colleagues say is a central problem facing the Albuquerque-Santa Fe area and other similar rapidly growing Western population centers. The $375 million New Mexico commuter train is largely funded with local money.
    Federal help will be critical in providing the infrastructure to help the new cities cope with growth and reach their potential.
    "We need to make sure," said Bernalillo County Commissioner Deanna Archuleta, "that not all of the impact falls on local government."
    Archuleta and Baca are among a host of local officials from around the West who contributed to the study, which will be formally unveiled Tuesday in Denver. Archuleta will be on a panel to discuss the report that includes Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.
    Historically, federal dollars helped large cities obtain the infrastructure they needed to grow and prosper.
    We are, in essence, like younger siblings whose families ran out of college tuition savings by the time we graduated from high school. "The West grew up later," Lang explained.
    The nation's interstate highway system, built with federal money, was an integral part of urban development in the last half century. Older, more mature cities got money. But cities like Tucson and Albuquerque weren't large enough when the money was being doled out to merit the networks of beltways that are common in the east. Nashville, for example — a city similar in size to Albuquerque — sits at the junction of three interstates, and is ringed by two beltways.
    The urban West also grew up largely devoid of commuter trains and subways. "Unlike the East, mass transit didn't grow up with it," Baca said.
    The new Western mega-cities are trying to catch up.
    In addition to New Mexico's Rail Runner, Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City are all considering or building commuter rail lines of some type.
    Despite New Mexico's willingness to shoulder much of the Rail Runner cost itself, the Brookings report concludes that in the long run, sufficient rail transit networks, both within and between cities, cannot be built in the West without federal help.
    Current federal transportation funding policy poses a major problem, according to the report, because it favors highways over mass transit systems.